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Should they live or die?


If the man sentenced to death for shooting Toni MacDonald's son repeatedly with a 9 mm pistol had been executed immediately after his conviction, the Santa Rosa mother would have supported such swift justice.

However, nearly two decades have passed since the killing of James "Jimmy Mac" MacDonald, a Santa Rosa native and former Piner High School quarterback. The man convicted of the slaying, Regis Dean Thomas, remains on Death Row at San Quentin State Prison.

"I wish it would have been the next day," MacDonald said. "But then as time went by — now I have issues with the death penalty. The cost to the public is astronomical ... And that's never going to change; it just won't."

An initiative to abolish the death penalty qualified Monday for the November ballot, once again thrusting Californians into the debate over capital punishment.

Supporters of the measure, which is called the Savings, Accountability, and Full Enforcement for California Act, contend that the sluggish pace of executions and high costs associated with housing Death Row inmates and overseeing their cases are obstacles to justice.

If the measure passes, men convicted of some of Sonoma County's most heinous crimes would have their sentences converted from death to life without the possibility of parole.

Among them are seven men convicted of killing their own children and wives, of raping girls, of stabbing an elderly woman and of shooting a deputy.

"The only reason I think about Richard Allen Davis at all is because these people who oppose the death penalty keep throwing this in our faces," said Marc Klaas, whose 12-year-old daughter, Polly Klaas, was kidnapped from her Petaluma home, then raped and strangled. Her body was discarded near an abandoned lumber mill in Cloverdale.

Davis was sentenced to death in 1996. He awaits execution.

Fourteen California Death Row inmates have been executed since 1978, including a man whose execution took place in Missouri. At that pace, it would take 1,800 years to execute 720 people — the number of men and women currently on Death Row.

The process drags families through decades of hearings, said Jeanne Woodford, a former warden of San Quentin State Prison and one of the measure's supporters.

"Life without the possibility of parole means these inmates will die in prison and it means that we will quit spending millions to billions on appeals," said Woodford, a one-time Rohnert Park resident who now runs the national nonprofit group Death Penalty Focus.

"It is a broken system," she said.

The cost of death penalty cases is no small matter for California, which faces a huge ongoing budget deficit, said Woodford, who began to work at San Quentin State Prison in 1978 after graduating from Sonoma State University.

"These crimes are horrible; there's nothing we can do to bring closure to these family members," she said. "But we certainly can end this legal battle that can go on forever."

California spent $308 million on each of the 13 cases that have resulted in execution at San Quentin since 1978, according to a comprehensive three-year study by U.S. 9th Circuit Judge Arthur L. Alarcon and his law clerk and Loyola Law School professor Paula M. Mitchell.

The state currently spends $184 million a year on death penalty cases, according to the study. The figure includes legal costs for trials, appeals and for housing inmates in single cells.

Such costs and delays are inexcusable, say opponents of the ballot measure

"It should not have taken this long — it shouldn't take any longer than a dog's euthanization," said Carmina Salcido of Rohnert Park.

Salcido's father, Ramon Salcido, murdered her mother, Angela, when Salcido was 3 years old in April of 1989. He then slashed her throat and those of her sisters, Sofia, 4, and Teresa, 22 months, and killed four others. Carmina was the only family member to survive.

Now 26 and with 1-year-old daughter, Zophia. she at times has struggled to support herself and sought government assistance including food stamps.

During those times, she's thought about her father receiving three square meals each day and never worrying about how to keep a roof over his head.

"This is outrageous, for victims to try to make ends meet and people who caused their struggle live pretty decently," Salcido said.

Salcido said the death penalty process should be shortened, suggesting the standards to impose death sentences be made stricter so that executions could place sooner.

"I believe this is a just and humane thing to do," Salcido said.

However, some studies suggest that repairing the system would cost even more.

A lack of attorneys qualified to handle death penalty proceedings is at the center of a backlog in appeals and habeas corpus proceedings, according to the 2008 report of the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice.

Woodford said an analysis of the report suggests it could cost $100 million more each year for the state to effective overhaul the death penalty system.

Klaas criticized the backlog of death penalty appeals cases for causing ballooning costs.

He also worries that the system would become more lenient if the death penalty is abolished, eventually allowing some people to eventually be released on parole.

"There are no guarantees whatsoever, not even an inkling of a guarantee, that replacing the death penalty with life without the possibility of parole will guarantee these people will stay inside," Klaas said.

Sonoma County's top law enforcement officials said they have sworn to uphold the law, and until the death penalty is abolished, that includes supporting capital punishment.

Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch said that as a member of the California District Attorneys Association she opposes abolishing the death penalty.

However Ravitch, who has never asked a jury to return a verdict of death, said the lengthy appeals process may not be in the best interests of victims or their families.

"One of the advantages of a life-without-parole sentence is that it gives the victim a sense of finality," Ravitch said.

Sonoma County Sheriff Steve Freitas said he hopes that the measure prompts an analysis of costs among states that use the death penalty, but he stopped short of taking a stand on the issue.

"I would hope the death penalty could be administered in an efficient way," Freitas said. "But I want whatever the victims want. Some victims don't support it, but for other victims, it gives them a sense of closure."

The measure's provision that the projected savings of $100 million over 3.5 years are to be diverted to local law enforcement agencies is a promise unlikely to materialize, Santa Rosa Police Chief Schwedhelm said.

"This money is magically going to flow from the state to the local level or county level? That just starts blurring the issue."

Klaas said that he will be able to stop thinking about his daughter's killer once the man is executed.

"Who the hell do they think Richard Allen Davis is? Don't they get what he did, don't they know that Salcido slit the throats of his own daughters?" Klaas said. "Why are they so hell-bent on protecting these individuals?"

But for Toni MacDonald and her husband, Jim, who still live in Santa Rosa where they raised their son, the execution of his killer will bring no closure.

"It's selfish in a way, but to me for him to lie down on a gurney and get a shot and go to sleep, that's too easy," MacDonald said. "I want him to live in that cell. I hope he lives to be 99 or 100 years old. That is punishment."

News researcher Janet Balicki contributed to this report.

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com.